Former Gaels' men's volleyball coach, Willis, honoured with recognition award

Photo by Robin Kasem
Photo by Robin Kasem

I credit male athletes for accepting me, and I know I have been a role model for women who want to do what I do.” - Brenda Willis

Kingston, Ont. - As a veteran volleyball coach, game official, and player, Brenda Willis has experienced the emotional rollercoaster; the game thrillers and disappointments during her stellar career.

Willis knows about challenges. She’s always had a positive work ethic during her tenure at Queen’s University in Kingston. Willis has also been in a rather unique situation - that of being the only female head coach of a men’s university team in Canada.

Incredibly passionate about what she does; innovative and efficient at getting athletes to buy in to striving for excellence, Willis has been prepared for everything that came her way, be it in a practice or game.

Well, almost everything.

As a coach for 44 years, 31 of them with the guys at Queen’s, Willis still chuckles about an episode that occurred during her first year on the job in Kingston. Holding a clipboard in the campus gym, Willis remembers a young male student had walked in, wanted to play for the school, approached her and asked where he could find the coach of the men’s team.

Willis didn’t hesitate with her response.

“I told him that I was the coach. He looked at me, swore, walked off and I never saw him again,” said Willis, who was 34 years old at the time, married and the mother of two toddlers.

“His response was interesting - and I wasn’t sure what he was expecting. A few things I do know, I wasn’t going to let the stereotypes stand in the way and my focus was on building a program – one that would make each player benefit greatly.”

While some people may have underestimated Willis, all they had to do was a bit of homework and stick around long enough to understand that she had already made her positive mark in the game with community, university, and provincial coaching jobs.

Also toss in countless hours as an athlete, mentor, and educator.

In just over three decades with Queen’s, Willis put together teams that won six OUA championships. In fact, she only had one season with no playoff action, and compiled an impressive overall win-loss record of 367-196. Accolades have come her way, even from opposing players and male coaches.

Looking back, Willis, influential and persistent in teaching her athletes to strive for excellence, even while performing under pressure and tough situations, has accomplished some notable and profound personal achievements.

They included six times being chosen as the conference’s Coach of the Year and recognized with the OUA’s John McManus Award as a coach who exemplifies the highest ideals of sportsmanship and service.  There’s more. Just after her retirement in 2018, Willis was the choice for the Coaches Association of Ontario’s Andy Higgins Lifetime Achievement award.

“I was given an opportunity (at Queen’s), was very fortunate and understood that developing good relationships was important,” said Willis who, in 2014, was inducted to the Kingston and District Sports Hall of Fame. “I credit male athletes for accepting me, and I know I have been a role model for women who want to do what I do.”

Now, Willis has another award to add to her mounting collection. The largest provincial university sports network in Canada, the OUA, saluted the achievements of Willis with a “Women in Sport Recognition Award” at its inaugural luncheon highlighting the superb accomplishments of female leaders. She received the award during the OUA annual general meeting in Kingston.

“People who know me, know I am blunt, a straight-forward shooter and my personality suits it,” she said, admitting confidence in her ability was always stronger than naysayers. “I have loved coaching. Volleyball has been my passion, my hobby, and my family.”

Mention volleyball and Willis is about as motivated as they come. Her contagious positive outlook has worn off on her players, colleagues, and friends. She has set the standards, while others analyzed, and then proceeded to exceed with the highest of expectations.

Drills were more than just a post-class get-together for players. Willis stressed that players needed to deal with emotions in a positive way and was strict when she had to be. She emphasized that athletes had to understand that a drill was just as critical as a game or a playoff. It had a purpose and a goal.

For Willis, learning and excelling in the sport was mandatory, but she also had time for players who may have had personal issues and needed assistance.

“It’s not always about sport,” said Willis, who was stunned when more than 100 alumni returned for a reception honoring her retirement. “There are times when you need to be there, make yourself available, for a student who needs to talk about things and has this huge amount of respect and trust in you.”

Willis got hooked on volleyball in grade school, played at William Lyon Mackenzie Collegiate in Toronto and then pursued the sport, as an athlete and game official, while pursuing a degree at the University of Waterloo. It was 1976 in Kitchener-Waterloo when Willis started a volleyball club, then went on to coach at the University of Guelph and at Wilfrid Laurier University before moving east to the Queen City.

Her experience and technical expertise have led to success. Willis has coached with the Canadian National program, and while in charge of the Ontario Provincial squad, led the team to a gold medal at the 1993 Canada Summer Games in Kamloops, B.C.

Having been on the volleyball sport governing bodies at the national, regional, and local levels, including 17 years as the Coaching Chair of the Ontario Volleyball Association, Willis has taught dozens of technical and theory clinics for the former National Coaching Certification Program.

“You go through battles, and I had my share in the early years at Queen’s, trying to get credibility for my sport and my players – and that meant playing in the main gym and not the one in the back of the building,” she said. “When they had an 18-2 season, people listened when you won. Some athletes advanced to play for Canada and in the pros, and the players earned the right to be respected along with the other major sports.”

Active with the Pegasus volleyball club program in Kingston since 2011, always devoting time to volunteering, Willis was asked recently about making the decision to retire from Queen’s.

“There was a nice (Queen’s) pension, other opportunities were available like beach volleyball clinics, gardening and golf in the summer, and I felt tired of the rigorous activity,” said Willis, a former winner of the OVA’s Volunteer of the Year award.

“I figured athletes deserved a younger, energetic coach, so it was time for me to move on – but I’ll never forget the great times and how volleyball has given me a circle of friends.”

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David Grossman is a multi award-winning communicator and storyteller with a distinguished career in Broadcasting, Journalism and Public Relations in Sport and Government Relations. In 2018, he was presented with the OUA Media Award of Distinction.